Syria sees its foreign foes as key to Aleppo truce

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 19, 2015 11:55 AM

By Tom Perry and Laila Bassam

DAMASCUS - The Syrian government said on Thursday the success of a U.N. bid to freeze fighting in Aleppo hinged on whether foreign states that back the insurgents can get them to comply, and that no time frame had been set for the proposed ceasefire.

In an interview with Reuters, Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi also said Syrian army progress against the Islamic State militant group far outstripped anything accomplished by a U.S.-led alliance that has ruled out the idea of partnering with Damascus.

Nearly four years into the conflict, the state is fighting insurgents including both jihadists and mainstream rebels in southern and northern Syria, in addition to the Islamic State group that has declared eastern areas of Syria part of its self-styled “caliphate”.

Pursuing a truce in the northern city of Aleppo, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Tuesday that Damascus was willing to suspend aerial bombardment and artillery shelling so a local ceasefire could be tested in the city, where both jihadists and other insurgents are battling the army and allied forces.

Asked whether the ceasefire would work, Zoabi said: "The success of any effort related to the war on Syria depends on the capacity of the parties that finance the armed terrorist groups to control them, deter them, and halt their actions and massacres against civilians."

Zoabi said he was referring to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Jordan -- which have all offered support to rebels fighting the government in the war estimated to have killed around 200,000 people. The insurgent groups fighting in and around Aleppo include the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which has been classified as a terrorist group by the United States and has been sanctioned by the United Nations.

"Talking about freezing shelling is part of a freeze of fighting, meaning this freeze in fighting is the responsibility of all the armed parties in Aleppo,” Zoabi said.

"The Syrian government is still studying what Mr. de Mistura said ... and when he comes to Damascus there will be clear and precise answers from the Syrian government."

A spokeswoman for de Mistura, Juliette Touma, said his team would visit Damascus next week.

"Mr de Mistura said we will have to engage with the opposition on the six-week halt and see what sort of response we get from them with regard to halting rocket and mortar attacks. If that works and we have a positive response from both sides that means the six-week halt can actually start," she said.

The battle for Aleppo, Syria's most populous city when the uprising began, is one of the longest lasting of the war. Rebels who bring supplies from the north still control part of the city.

FIGHTING ISLAMIC STATE

Fighting near Aleppo accelerated this week with the army and allied forces seizing territory north of the city. It marks the second major offensive launched by the army and allied forces this month after it advanced against rebels in the south.

Zoabi said the army was making progress throughout Syria, including in eastern areas where Islamic State expanded last year after seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul.

The United States and allied states have been conducting air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria since September in a campaign Syrian officials have previously described as fruitless.

The army has recently made advances against Islamic State in the provinces of Hasaka and in Deir al-Zor, which both border Iraq.

“What the Syrian army is accomplishing on a daily basis is many, many times more important than everything that the so-called alliance against terrorism is doing,” said Zoabi.

“The Syrian army is also using its warplanes against Daesh, using its weapons, its military plans against Daesh and has more experience in the field on the ground in fighting Daesh and the Nusra Front,” said Zoabi. Daesh is an acronym for Islamic State.

(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Giles Elgood)